Monday, Dec. 21, 2009

Lessons From the Copenhagen Climate Talks

It was during the wee hours of Saturday morning when a delegate from Saudi Arabia, of all places, expressed what may have been the consensus view of the contentious final plenary session at the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen. "I am working without break for 48 hours now," he said. "I do not see, in the future, a situation where we can adopt a legally binding, given these [reactions to a compromise plan hammered out between President Obama and the leaders of the key developing nations]. This is without exception the worst plenary I have ever attended, including the management of the process, the timing, everything."

But although many will remember the Copenhagen climate summit as an unmitigated disaster, that's too simple an assessment. The event was nothing if not contentious. Outside the venue, stressed out Danish riot cops clashed with thousands of protestors demanding action by the world's governments. Inside, some of the poorer developing countries kept the proceedings frozen with procedural objection after procedural objection, while major economies like the U.S. and China brought little new to the summit and barely budged from their negotiation positions. In the end, all that was produced was an interim accord barely worth the name. It was bitterly attacked by many environmentalists, and even its chief architect, President Barack Obama, admitted the pact was "not enough" and that "we have a long way to go."

For all its limitations, however, the Copenhagen Accord is the first real step to fighting climate change in the 21st century. The real value of Copenhagen of the summit may lie in what it teaches us about dealing with climate change — and much more. Here are five lessons of the summit:

1. George W. Bush was right, sort of. After ignoring climate change for much of his tenure, Bush in late 2007 called a Washington meeting of the major economies — hoping to make headway on combatting global warming by focusing on the handful of countries, developed and developing, that produce the vast majority of carbon emissions. Environmentalists, unsurprisingly, lambasted the idea, assuming it was a ploy to undercut the U.N. system. The meeting came and went with little impact.

But last Friday morning, after two weeks of fruitless negotiations among most of U.N. member states, President Obama arrived in Copenhagen to find the summit on the verge of collapse. So, he plunged into seven hours of hard, direct bargaining with a select group of world leaders, eventually cutting a deal with those from China, India, Brazil and South Africa — the world's largest and most important emerging economies, and the leading country in Africa, the continent that will suffer most from climate change. Their agreement was presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis to the other 180 plus nations. While Copenhagen won't end the U.N. process for addressing climate change, but it marks a shift to decision making by smaller groups of powerful nations working in more manageable numbers. As undemocratic as that may be, Copenhagen showed that it may also be the only way to get something done.

2.China will be decisive. When Obama landed in Copenhagen, to key leader with whom he needed to huddle was China's Premier Wen Jiaobao. But Wen played hard to get, twice sending a lower-level official to meet with Obama and other world leaders. Washington and Beijing clashed throughout the summit over the issue of transparency: whether developing countries would expose their domestic climate actions to international review.

But the real battle was to persuade China, now the world's largest emitter of carbon gases, to relinquish its outdated developing-nation status under the Kyoto Protocol, and commit to targets more in line with its status as a leading industrial power. China is investing hundreds of billions in clean energy, and brought to Copenhagen pledges to improve energy efficiency. Yet, Beijing remained largely passive at Copenhagen, resistant to throwing in its lot with an international system and reluctant to use its growing power to influence the talks in a positive way. Although it looks set to become the world's second largest economy by the end of the year, it is also home to hundreds of millions of poor people — hence the developing-nation mindset. But unless China can be coaxed to play a leadership role in any future concerted global action on climate change, there simply won't be any.

3. We can agree to save the forests. Although no smart observer expected a Copenhagen accord to include legally binding emission-reduction targets, the final accord omitted even the long-term emissions goals included in earlier drafts. Expect a renewal of the same debates a year from now at the next U.N. climate summit in Mexico City. But Copenhagen's bright spot was progress on slowing deforestation. The logging and burning of tropical rainforests accounts for around 15% of global carbon emissions, and eliminates important carbon sinks such as the Amazon. A plan excluded from Kyoto — titled Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) — under which wealthier nations pay rainforest countries for preserving their trees made a comeback at Copenhagen. Stopping deforestation is a cheap way to slow carbon emissions and protects the most important wildlife habitat on the planet.

The Copenhagen negotiations on REDD made real progress, signaling that both the developed and developing nations want it to succeed. Although the lack of a more ambitious wider agreement limited the progress that could be made on REDD, the Copenhagen Accord does include a mention of it — which raises the hope that forests are at least one thing that governments may find a way to save.

4.Green schism. The Environmental Defense Fund — a U.S. green group that often works with business — praised the Copenhagen Accord as an "important step," and other mainstream environmental groups had a similarly measured response. But the new group — which demands extremely sharp and immediate carbon reductions — denounced the deal and protests outside the venue began almost immediately.

The differing response among environmentalists suggests that Copenhagen may produce splits similar to those among liberal Democrats over how to respond to compromises over health-care reform in the U.S. While most greens remain firmly in Obama's corner even if they're far from satisfied, we can expect an escalation of civil skirmishes within a movement that's generally been a happy family.

5. It's going to get harder, and that's a good thing. In the weeks preceding the summit, world leaders had downgraded expectations for a binding agreement, aiming instead for a broad political agreement while kicking tough decisions such as emission targets down the road. Logically, that should have made the talks at Copenhagen easier. Obviously that's not what happened, as the summit's final 48 hours were passed on the brink of collapse. But if Copenhagen was tough, Mexico City will be a lot more so, because there, countries will be tasked with filling in details sketched in the Copenhagen Accord.

Yet the very struggle to reach agreement at Copenhagen, and the tougher talks to come, demonstrate that climate diplomacy has finally come of age. The negotiations at Copenhagen were so contentious because of the very real impact the proposals on the table will have, not only on the environment, but also on national economies. China and the U.S. played hardball — and sent heads of government to do the talking — precisely because they had something to lose. The onset of a kind of climate realpolitik, which eschews hot air for real action, signals is a sign that global climate talks have moved beyond symbolic rhetoric.

Copenhagen also signaled a profound change in the U.S. role. During the plenary of the previous U.N. climate summit in Bali two years ago, Kevin Conrad, the delegate from the small rainforest nation of Papua New Guinea, electrified the room when he told the recalcitrant U.S. delegation: "We seek your leadership, but if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way." At the very least, Copenhagen shows the U.S. is willing to lead. The question is for how long, and who will follow.